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In the poem “Ong Do”, Vu Dinh Lien discusses the deterioration and decay that is inevitable with prosperity and life. Lien paints the portrait of a calligrapher whose skill was once the epitome of his success. However, through the passage of time, even the wisest of the wise and the most skillful of the skilled fell victim to time's blind eye. Although Lien's poem discusses the demise of man in the face of nature, his poem also doubles to serve as a social commentary on behalf of the Vietnamese people's resistance to the demise of their own culture in the face of French colonization. In order to parallel the powerfully political, yet philosophical sentiment expressed in Lien's poem, I focused on maintaining the simplistic tone of voice and syntactical arrangement, all the while using the aid of insinuating diction throughout the poem to express author's intent. The title of my poem was more simply titled, “He Who..”, as to more accurately portray the obscureness of the revered calligrapher, highlighting his insignificance in the protest of time. The subject of the poem was a calligrapher, indeed, referring back to Thomas De Le's translated title. However, Lien's original Vietnamese text points to “Ong” as meaning “He”. With such a vague pronoun, I wished to mirror Lien's intent by not giving the subject of the poem a title, as a title would suggest some type of
'significance' the subject has- which the subject's significance is de-emphasized in the poem, and meant to be mere. The first two stanzas of my poem introduces the subject amidst the beginning of Spring in which the “petals of cherry blossoms” have just bloomed. I wanted to be exact in the specificity of time expressed in my translation which is why I chose “Each year” as to relay the continuity of nature in a cycle. The blooming of the cherry trees signify 'rebirth' and 'renewal'- something nature possesses, but man does not. The subject in my translation is then given the identity of being the “Wise man”. Reason I chose “wise man” over the translator's “scholar”, because I thought scholar carried too many western connotations of being heavily 'educated.' Although that is not to say that being wise does not mean 'being educated', it is just that Vietnamese culture tends to mirror Chinese culture in which the trait of being 'wise' is highly revered. It is not to be just 'smart', but it is to be also philosophical, which I thought 'scholar' did not connotate with too effectively. Being 'wise'- Chinese-implications wise, is more self-imposed and natural, not forced upon by rigorous studying. The wise man in my poem is depicted carrying with him “black ink” and “China parchment”. Calligraphy has always been a sought after art form in Asian culture, therefore black ink and China parchment would connect with the work of the calligrapher. The decision of 'parchment' over 'paper' lends the calligrapher's craft and skill some prestige. All the Chinese driven cultural symbolism I fused in my poem have a specific duty in which they exemplify the height of Vietnamese culture (since the Chinese had great influence over the Vietnamese for years)- precolonized by French forces. The calligrapher is the symbol of prosperity and glory that parallels the era of the Vietnamese, before they fell victim to western encroachment.
Another pair of symbolic couplings I added to the translation were the “Dragons” and “Phoenixes” that were painted by the calligrapher. In Lien's orginal of the poem, the verbs “mua” and “bay” are used to animate the two dimensional ink creations of the character.”Mua” indicating 'dance' and “bay” used to indicate “flight” Since the calligrapher is so highly skilled, such personification of his medium is used to enrich his talent. The translator decided to not dedicate too much time to personify the dragons and phoenixes which I thought detracted from the richness of the original poem. Instead of putting the emphasis on his “accomplished hand” like Le did, I emphasized how the dragons and phoenixes “took flight” from the “command of his fingers”. It was more important to stress the 'liveliness' of the mystical creatures, because the mystical creatures hold so much cultural significance in Vietnamese (also Chinese) culture. The animation and life of the dragons and phoenixes determines and expresses the life and vitality that existed within Vietnamese culture, when they were at their prime. However there is a shift in the poem as the calligrapher's prosperity comes to a halt. Contrary to the author and the translator's portrayal of the decaying significance of the man, I decided to rearrange my translation's syntactical structure to exemplify the isolation and deterioration of this prosperity. Lien and Le both continued their line by line sentence structure, while I isolated two stanzas which indicated the shift of changing times.
But the years increased
And the people dwindled.
The intentional separation of these two stanzas stresses more powerfully the sense of 'loneliness' and despair that comes with the corroding effects of time. Through this structural decision, the power of time is given more authority and attention, like how time crept on the calligrapher. Another example of my
manipulation of text structure: The vibrancy of the scarlet parchment
Dissipated. The flowing ink from his fountain pen Lost its fluidity in grief.
The separation of action away from subject effectively relays the emphasis of a somber mood that has substituted the once joyous mood of the poem. In the original poem, Lien gives much attention to the melancholy vibe of the calligrapher's newly lost recognition. Utilizing words like “sau” and “buon” which expresses Vietnamese expressions for 'grief' and 'dejection', Lien describes the calligrapher's instruments of art to signify the beginning of his fall from fame. I paralleled that same mood with personifying the ink and paper with actions of anguish, as they once symbolized the man's success, now symbolizing his eventual demise.
As the climatic event of the poem enfolds, the poem pursues a new tone of 'dejection' to project the silent acceptance of the old man and his destined fate. The old man “sat down” directly translated from Lien's Vietnamese. I thought that was a lot more effective in conveying to the reader of the 'hopelessness' that has ensued the old man. I purposely identified the subject of my translation now as the 'old man' as he has lost his prestige and 'wise-ness', contrary to the translator identifying the subject still as the 'calligrapher'. The reason for this difference is that if one were to refer back to the title of the poem, “Ong Do”, the second word, “Do” means change in Vietnamese. It was especially important that the subject undergo a change in identity, and not assume the same 'persona' throughout the poem, because Lien's intent was to write a poem about change; inevitable change. Therefore referring to the subject still as 'calligrapher' would detract from the essence of the poem. The last few stanzas of the poem parallel the first stanzas of the poem in which the mention of the blooming of cherry blossoms are occurring once more. Staying true to
the simplistic style of Lien, I phrased “The cherry blossoms once more bloomed”, as to perpetuate the emphasis of nature's continuity versus man's lack of one. I decided to place action before subject as to highlight the act of spring happening despite the subject, “the old man's” absence. I maintained the simplistic writing style of Lien, carrying on about how “the villagers continued to live and age”, the simplicity of his sentences almost representing a lack of 'care' and 'concern' that exists in nature for the old man. In the greater message of the author, the absence of the old man represents the absence of the 'old' Vietnamese culture in the face of French colonization. Mirroring the simplistic style of the original poet, the demise of the calligrapher was conveyed. With the author's poetic integrity intact, the expression of sentiment towards western encroachment upon Vietnamese culture was subtly articulated, emulated by how easily the role of the calligrapher was eroded. Time represents the era in which the West stands prominent, and the calligrapher representing a culture under the attack.